Is it really too much to ask?

NST, May 08, 2014
By Haris Hussain |

PUBLIC INTEREST: Selangor govt must reveal all results of tests carried out on disused mining pools in Bestari Jaya

WHILE trolling the aisle of a supermarket recently, an unusually enthusiastic salesman stopped me dead in my tracks and shoved a can of skin whitening cream that would, going by his claims, change the way I viewed life and all of Creation. He insisted I needed it, even though I and several close acquaintances, had had no problems with my dull dark brown sheen up to that point.

I listened to his spiel and almost bought into his argument that this dollop of white cream with avocado extracts was one of those essential things in life. He seemed genuinely surprised to learn that I had never heard of it or felt the need for it before but stopped short of wondering out loud how I had managed to survive all these years without having a can tucked away in my medicine cabinet.

I gave him his two seconds, then politely declined, gently brushing aside the blue can off the tip of my nose and proceed to walk away. I could walk away because I didn't need it. It wasn't an essential part of my existence. Other than supposedly being able to add an unnatural radioactive glow to my face, it would not impact my life a great much.

Unlike water.

We put our trust in providers of essential services such as water because there's simply no one else. Because we've been told that service providers have our best interests at heart. They may charge a premium but that's the way the cookie crumbles. You pay and you expect to get a certain level of service. Because there's a certain expectation, based on reasonable probability, that these smart men and women, would not do anything knowingly to harm us. Because it's been drummed into our heads, seared into our consciousness that they know what they're doing.

The Selangor government first started pumping water from several disused mining pools in Bestari Jaya into Sungai Selangor two months ago to boost the water levels in the main source of water for the Klang Valley. From the get-go, the plan was met with scepticism by scientists, the public and academia. The main concern was not the bacterial element in the water but the presence of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic.

Several cited research papers published in 2010 -- Study of Water Quality and Heavy Metals in Soil and Water of Ex-Mining Area Bestari Jaya, Peninsular Malaysia and Specification of Heavy Metals in the Sediments of Former Tin Mining Catchment -- authored by professors from Universiti Malaya. One of the research papers stated that most physio-chemical parameters and metals concentration in Bestari Jaya exceeded the permissible limits set by Malaysian Water Quality Standards.

Despite reassurances from the state government that the toxicity levels were well within the national guidelines, no other guarantees were forthcoming. On April 28, the state government pledged to make public its findings that proved that the water from the mining ponds is safe to be used, once it received the results. It only did so nine days later after NST frontpaged the story yesterday.

Selangor executive councillor Dr Ahmad Yunus Hairi had said the water from the pools had been tested for Leptospira (rat urine) and had come up negative. It was not tested for heavy metals because "for this, you have to go to the lab. Luas (the Selangor Water Management Authority) checks for the other elements onsite, at the mining pools". A word to the wise: if you have to go to the lab, go to the lab.

There are several nagging questions here. At the top of the list is, wouldn't it have been more prudent for Luas to conduct a whole range of tests for heavy metals and other toxins instead of looking for just traces of Leptospira, pH levels and oxygen? What about looking for elements that cannot be treated or extracted by our water treatment plants? Why was this not done from the outset?

Should and could a comprehensive analysis be carried out on site? Wouldn't you need a more controlled, closed and sterile environment to perform these tests to ensure the integrity of the samples?

How would releasing the results of tests carried out on the disused mining pools in Bestari Jaya confuse the public? Yunus said the results of the tests on the mining ponds there since 2009 had not been made public because "we fear the public might be confused". I'd have a little bit more faith in the Malaysian public's capacity to understand simple concepts...

Water expert Associate Professor Dr Zaki Zainudin says there are 120 check-boxes in the National Water Quality that have to be ticked off by the authorities "before they even think of using the water". These include looking for traces of other elements other than heavy metals of microbacteria, and a comprehensive look at the history of the pools -- when they were decommissioned and what had been dumped into these pits. This desire to know what's in the water that's being channelled into Sungai Selangor shouldn't be mistaken for a witch hunt. As consumers, it is our right to know.

As consumers, we shouldn't settle for anything less.